Sunday, October 2, 2011

Noda, IGS and the DPJ's Space Dilemma

 In his address to the Diet in mid-September, Prime Minister Yoshihiko
Noda stated that -

"In order to call forth the aspiration to become a pioneer of a new era
among the young, we will advance the development of human resources,
including the bringing up global human resources, and educate to
develop people's ability to learn and think on their own. Furthermore,
we will be exploring policies to open up frontiers of a new Japan,
including the establishment of a new community development model which
aims to achieve prosperous furusato (homelands), the development of sea
areas which are said to be a reservoir of marine resources, and the
establishment of a strategic scheme for promoting the development and
use of outer space."

This fleeting reference to a new space strategy was followed a bit
later on by a few comments on Japanese national security issues.

"There is also an increasing lack of transparency in the security
environment surrounding Japan. In such a situation it is naturally the
responsibility of the government to create a system in time of peace
that is capable of responding swiftly to any crisis that may unfold in
order to ensure regional peace and stability as well as safety of the
people. In accordance with the new National Defense Program Guidelines
that were formulated at the end of last year, Japan will enhance its
readiness and mobility and work to build a dynamic defense force, thus
responding to the new security environment," said Noda.

(The full text of PM Noda's address can be seen here -

Ten days later, JAXA launched the latest of several Information
Gathering Satellites (IGS), which form a constellation that will not be
completely deployed until at least 2018. The JAXA web site remains
silent thus far about what was the 19th H-IIA launch by the way.

The IGS launch received very little media coverage. This comes as no real
surprise. Simultaneous space-related stories at the time included the
looming plunge to Earth of the U.S.-built UARS satellite, and the
pending launch of the first module for China's space station. The
launch of the U.S. TacSat-4 satellite - validating trends in Japanese
space research among other things - and the return of the Sea Launch
system to operational status after a 2-year hiatus proved to be much hotter
space news stories than the IGS launch.

Noda probably appreciated the low profile of the IGS because space and spy satellite
activities in particular are way down on his agenda.

If you turn the clock back to the days in March just prior to the Great
2011 Earthquake, the Japanese space sector was in a very upbeat mood
following the completion of a lucrative sale of a pair of satellites in
Turkey involving Turksat and MELCO.

At the same time, this satellite transaction happened independently of
anything unfolding in Japan's Strategic Headquarters for Space
Development. And while Noda apparently wants to encourage a private
sector surge in space-related exports, companies like NEC Corp. are not
shy about reminding everyone that they have been there, and done that
already. In a presentation last year, for example, NEC listed dozens of
satellites flying over Europe, North and South America and even China
which are equipped with vital components supplied by NEC.

The latest IGS launch comes at a time when the U.S. is anxious to
increase its ISR activities directed at China, too. So what results is
a growing layer of Japanese satellite surveillance cloaked within the
surge of multi-platform intelligence gathering by the U.S. focused on
the same region. This increased redundancy in satellite imagery
generation seems awkward at best, especially at a time when the world
is awash in satellite imagery in general. The bumpy ride experienced
lately by Germany-based RapidEye AG - now under the ownership of
Canada-based Iunctus Geomatics - is an excellent case in point.

So, detecting what lies ahead in space during the early days of the
Noda government is heavy in speculation and light in substance. The
decision to go ahead with the IGS launch and all the Japanese
footprints around foreign commercial satellite launch sites were made
long before the DPJ reshuffled the cards and Noda arrived in his
current office. The small satellite boom with its robotic emphasis -
something that seems to fascinate Noda in particular - is well underway
as well. What Noda and his advisors must decide is whether or not to
tinker with this smooth-running apparatus at a time when precious
resources are scarce and there are so many other things in Japan that
require his urgent attention.

Abandoning plans to establish a Japanese space agency a la NASA for now
and leaving all space-related decisionmaking inside the Cabinet Office
seems to show that the Noda team is taking a realistic view of the
Japanese space sector, although this is bound to stir up some
objections. Expanding upon the GPS concept which has been dedicated to
serving the Japanese islands from the start also makes sense so long as
a budgetary balance can be maintained.

Injecting new and uncertain elements into the Japanese space agenda is
something this new government seems inclined to shy away from. Noda is not Hatoyama, and Noda needs to focus on building public confidence not launching rockets. In a nutshell, space can wait.